Growing up on the rough streets of Mahopac, N.Y., I was one of many who loathed Duke’s basketball team. Not sure why, in hindsight. The success? The stoic coach? The unis? The pretty boys? Whatever the reason, Duke was my personal sports equivalent to chopped liver.
That said, as I’ve grown older I’ve learned that some of the guys who attend Duke are actually (gasp!) nice.
Take Chris Burgess for example.
Chris was a high school All-American who spent two years playing for Duke (he was a key member of the Blue Devils squad that lost to UConn in the classic 1999 NCAA title game) before transferring to Utah for his final collegiate seasons. He’s spent the ensuing decade roaming the world, playing basketball in more countries than 99 percent of the people reading this post have ever visited. He also happens to be a dedicated Mormon, a devoted husband/father and a truly decent and wonderful person (I first communicated with Chris about a year ago, when he responded to a Facebook post I wrote about my woes with plantar fasciitis by offering up a detailed attack plan. Was insanely kind of him). For Quaz II: Electric Boogaloo, Chris agreed to talk all things March Madness, March Mormon, women’s bathrooms, the pain of bidding your NBA dreams adieu and what it’s like to nearly die in a plane crash alongside a near-vomiting Roshon McLeod.
Big thanks to Sir Burgess, and a happy March Madness to all.
JEFF PEARLMAN: I was pondering this last night, and it’s an odd thought: LeBron James might be the most famous man in America. He makes millions of dollars, has millions of fans, plays for a great NBA team. Yet were I given the choice of living his basketball journey or yours, I’d pick yours—without much debate. Sure, you’ve never played in the NBA. But the travels … the worldliness … the experiences.
Do you agree or disagree? And is there a mixed blessing to not spending 10 years in the NBA?
CHRIS BURGESS: I feel very blessed and privileged to be able to travel the world and play the game I love. I’ve been to so many countries, seen many wonders of the world and traveled to countries, on my team’s dime, that I would never probably travel to had I been a 10-year vet in the NBA. However, having said all this, I would give it all up for an NBA career. Growing up as a kid, I always dreamed of either being a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers or playing power forward for my favorite team, the Boston Celtics. I never grew up with the aspirations of traveling the world and playing basketball in Asia, Latin America or Europe. I always wanted to play in the very best league in the world, the NBA. My dream was to never make millions of dollars, it was just to play in the NBA against the very best. Having said that, playing overseas is an amazing backup plan for any basketball players who are quite good enough to play in the NBA. It’s a great way to make a living, see the world and I feel like I’m a much more cultured person because of it.
J.P.: So in looking back at your career, I found an article, from 2006, that said this: “This is the same Chris Burgess who was selected the Sporting News’ National High School Player of the Year in 1997, beating out Lamar Odom and Tracy McGrady.” It wasn’t an original sentiment, in that it seems any piece written about you brings up your status as a high school All-American, or as your time at Duke, in the unsaid-but-actually-said-very-loudly context of, “Man, this guy has been a disappointment.” I was wondering if you agree with my take, and if, at age 31, you yourself consider your lack of an NBA career to be a disappointment.
C.B.: I would agree with you 100 percent—my lack of NBA career to me was a disappointment. Having said that, I felt like I took advantage of every possible option I had to become the best player I could be, starting back in high school at all the AAU tournaments and summer All-American camps. I had a tough three years after transferring to University of Utah with injuries. My redshirt year I tear my back doing squats, my junior year I brake my left foot in a game vs. San Diego State and my senior year I tear my plantar fascia vs. Texas.
Having said all that, I was still able to get healthy, attend the Chicago NBA Pre-Draft camp and perform well—finishing second in rebounding behind Lonnie Baxter. After not being drafted for four-straight summers, I had every opportunity to still try and make the NBA by playing with summer leagues for the Phoenix Suns, the Boston Celtics twice and the Washington Wizards. My rookie year I also went to Phoenix Suns training camp where I was the last one waived. So I had every opportunity to try and make the NBA but I just wasn’t fortunate enough to make any one’s roster. Even though I feel like I was a disappointment for not making the NBA, I can honestly look in the mirror and say, man, I gave it everything I got.
Since high school, I’ve always been a gym rat and worked my butt off at my individual game, in the weight room nobody worked harder than me or could lift as much as me (I once saw the University of Utah nutritionist twice during season. First to gain weight and put on more muscle and then again to trim down because I got to big. Also, at NBA pre-draft camp Udonis Haslem and I set the bench press record for most reps with 185 pounds with 25 reps). So even though I never made it and am disappointed I felt I gave it everything I had that was in my power, sometimes there’s just somebody better than you.
J.P.: When you signed a letter to attend Duke, and not BYU, then-Cougars coach Roger Reid said you “let 9 million people down”—a reference to the 9 million-member L.D.S. church. This strikes me as one of the dumbest things a man has ever said.
How did you feel at the time, and can you look back and understand his sentiment (and does it give you any slight satisfaction that Reid has gone 40-80 in four seasons coaching Southern Utah?)?
C.B.: This was a crazy time in my life and I can remember it like it was yesterday. I had a good friend and teammate who signed at Kansas early and I asked him what was it like telling all these coaches you weren’t coming because that scares me. He said, “Man I just wrote them letters!” When I decided I was going to go to Duke, I asked my dad if I could send letters to Roy Williams of Kansas, Rick Pitino of Kentucky, Steve Lavin of UCLA and Roger Reid of BYU. He said absolutely not, these coaches spent a lot of time, money and energy recruiting you, the very least you can do is be a man and tell them thank you for your time but I’ve chosen to go somewhere else. I said, “You’re right Dad, but I want to call Coach K last because that would make me feel better after letting these coaches down.” Coach Williams, Pitino and Lavin were all very easy to talk to. They wished me well and told me good luck. Coach Reid was my last coach I had to let down and he wasn’t like the other coaches. However, during my recruiting process with him, I’d gotten to know him so well from home visits and weekly phone conversations. I grew to really admire him, so when he said that “Your father wants you to be here, your mother [wants you to be here] and you’re letting them down and also the other 9 million members of the L.D.S. church down.” I was so distraught and didn’t know what to think. I remember rationalizing, thinking all of them can’t be all BYU fans so I couldn’t possibly be letting down 9 million. I was a 17-year-old kid and was really upset because I believed this coach when he said that. Of course it wasn’t true but it was tough moment for me. But when I called Coach K and told him I was coming to Duke he made me feel better. I have no ill-feelings towards Coach Reid because of the relationship we had developed during the recruiting process. I’m sure he didn’t really mean what he said because all of us at one point say dumb things we don’t mean when something doesn’t go our way and that’s just the way I look at it.
In fact, last summer I was playing a pro-am in Utah vs. his son Robbie Reid and in walks Roger. I wanted to go over to him, hug him and tell him, ‘I know you didn’t mean what you said and I’m sorry that I was such a highly recruited athlete that the story became so big at BYU,’ but I didn’t. Instead I said nothing to him and he said nothing to me.
J.P.: Along those lines, Chris, of all the people I’ve dealt with in 17 years as a sports writer, I consider the lowest, slimiest genre to often be men’s Division I football and basketball coaches. They prey off of high school kids, woo, woo, woo, woo, make crazy promises—then, as soon as the kids don’t pan out, kick them to the curb. The graduation rates of most DI hoops programs are embarrassing, and the coaches don’t seem to particularly care. Am I off on this one? Is there something I’m missing?
C.B.: I’ve been very fortunate in this particular case because I played for two stand-up Hall of Fame coaches in Rick Majerus and Coach Krzyzewski. However, I don’t think you’re way off on this at all. When Coach K recruited me and I signed there, he said we’re not signing you to a one-year scholarship, we’re signing you to four years no matter what happens. That’s just the kind of coach/man he is. Coach Majerus’ graduating percentage was one of the highest and he made sure you were on top of things academically. Only thing I can really say is I’ve heard some stories about DI football and basketball coaches and I’m just glad that I played for two stand-up guys who would have never done something like that.
Or at least I don’t think they would.
J.P.: Obviously March Madness has, as always, consumed the American sports landscape. You reached the national championship game as a Duke sophomore in 1999. I was wondering what you remember of the experience. And, after losing to UConn in the finals, were you able to appreciate how far you made it? Or is it pure devastation—we’ve gotten this far … just to fall short?
Also, when a top team plays a low-seeded team, does the top team play with cockiness—or fear? I’ve always thought to be, say, Kansas playing Boston University, there must be some “Oh my God—what if we lose to these guys?” going on in the head. No?
C.B.: I love this question because I remember everything about my sophomore season Final Four run. It was one of those games where the top two seeds made the finals—Duke vs Connecticut, rosters loaded with NBA talent. The experience was amazing, I remember walking out to the floor at Tropicana Dome, seeing 44,000 basketball fans and feeling overwhelmed. I also remember feeling like a tiny ant. I know that might make sense but I just felt very small and thousands of people staring down at you. I have always been an NCAA basketball nut growing up and to make it and play in the Final Four was surreal. When we lost by three points and the final buzzer went off, it was pure devastation. The NCAA Tourney is such a long journey and it when I realized we had lost it just felt like ‘Man, this was such a long journey and boom, it’s over.’ I think Coach K said it best recently after they lost to Arizona. “Look, the tournament is cruel. It’s an abrupt end for everybody.” That quote right there nails it.
My two years at Duke, we were No. 1 seeds and I remember feeling a sense of cockiness. It was also easier for me because I was a 10-15 minute guy and most the pressure was on Elton Brand and Trajan Langdon. I never once thought ‘Man we’re playing Tulsa the No. 9 seed, we can’t lose or we’re a disgrace.’ I just remember thinking “We got these guys!” I’m not sure what Trajan or Elton were thinking before games against lower seeds but I can imagine it’s similar to my thinking because that’s the way Coach K motivated us, teaching us to have a swagger to our approach. I can’t speak for teams like Kansas when they lost last year to NIU or VCU this year because I don’t know how they prepare but I’m sure there’s always a little ‘Man we can’t lose to this #11 seed’ thinking going on.
J.P.: I was sort of interested to hear your take on Brandon Davies, the BYU star who, earlier this season, was kicked off the team for violating the school’s honor code. It turns of Davies had pre-marital sex—not exactly the most uncommon collegiate endeavor. Do you think teams like BYU, with a religious affiliation, should have honor codes? Are they realistic? And are you OK with athletes such as Davies probably being held to higher standards? (I’m guessing there are students at BYU having sex and just not being caught).
C.B.: This is a tough question, one that I’ve asked myself since the Brandon Davies suspension. The biggest thing we have is our freedom of choice, and with that freedom comes responsibilities for our actions. I’m a devout Mormon who follows the standards of the L.D.S. church, and since a young age I was taught right and wrong according to the L.D.S. beliefs. When I was recruited to BYU I was fully aware of the Honor Code, as is everyone that attends BYU. The Honor Code actually played a part for me choosing not to attend BYU. I felt that I should be able to make my own choices and deal with my mistakes with my ecclesiastic leader, privately. If there are any indiscretions with the Honor Code, the student who violates them are subject to consequences, this is typically handled privately. Unfortunately, due to the nature of being a high-profile athlete, like Davies, Honor Code violations are more public. For my part, I didn’t want the whole college basketball world knowing about my personal life. You have to respect BYU for following through with protocol in breaking the Honor Code, but at the same time I just feel for the kid, Davies, and how everyone knows about his private life.
I respect the BYU fans who all gave him a standing ovation when he entered the Marriott Center after his suspension, to me that says a lot. I also respect the basketball program for allowing him to still be a part of the team by practicing and going on road trips, especially to the NCAA Tourney. I just wish there could have been a way to privately discipline him and work with him but still find a way to allow him to play.
I do believe that schools, like BYU, can exist with an honor code. I do think it is realistic. The general body of BYU students do adhere to the Honor Code. BYU is a different school, meaning it is anything but ordinary. Every football season the broadcasters love to share the stat about how many of the players are married. It’s a student body that is unlike any other. I believe BYU has had the Princeton Review’s top “honor” of Stone Cold Sober school for a number of years, and that’s a testament to it’s standards and to the student body’s desire to live a certain way.
J.P.: A couple of years ago you did a Q&A with USA Today, and a reader asked whether you regretted not going on an L.D.S mission. You expressed remorse—your exact words were “I wish I would have served a mission.” I’m going to be 100 percent honest—as an agnostic Jew, religious missions confuse—and sometimes trouble—me. They strike me as “We’ll go to a third world nation, tame the savages, offer them some soda and beef jerky and sell them on a version of God that promises to save their lives. Then we’ll leave and they’ll still have malaria.” Tell me why I’m wrong—because I’m genuinely open on this one.
C.B.: That’s a good question, and I appreciate you affording me the opportunity to respond. The L.D.S. church sends missionaries out to all parts of the world. I have family members (father, brothers, uncles, cousins) that served as missionaries in Chicago, Arizona, Hawaii, Guatemala, Philippines, England, Brazil, Austria, Japan, and Argentina. My Utah (and McDonald’s All-American teammate) Britton Johnsen was a missionary in Houston, TX. You may have seen missionaries riding on bicycles or walking door to door, sharing their message in your own city. No matter their location, they are doing the same thing … which is doing everything they can to seek out people who may be interested in learning more about Jesus Christ and God’s plan.
In countries, or areas, that are impoverished, the L.D.S. church works with local leaders to help their local communities become more self-sufficient. The purpose of Church welfare is to promote self-reliance and to care for and serve the poor and needy. For assistance, recipients are encouraged to work (when able) so that they are blessed and can bless the lives of others. Work is a guiding principle in the Church’s welfare program. It’s pretty much the principle of “give a man a fish” vs. “teach a man to fish.” In areas like these, the missionaries play a small part, if any. The L.D.S. church and it’s local leaders are the ones who tend to the local welfare needs, not the missionaries.
J.P.: I love your Facebook profile—you’re a basketball-playing Mormon who enjoys pooping in women’s bathrooms and loves Lil Wayne. That doesn’t quite fit with the L.D.S. “Share a little bit of yourself … “ commercials I recall from my youth.
C.B.: I can’t stop laughing about this question. Regarding pooping in women’s bathrooms, let me start by saying I’m a huge fan of NBC’s The Office and my favorite character is Creed Bratton. This is one of my favorite quotes from Creed—”I’m a pretty normal guy, who does one weird thing. I go to the woman’s bathroom to do number two. I’ve been caught several times and I have paid dearly.”
I don’t actually do this and I should update my facebook profile by saying it’s from Creed Bratton of The Office.
Regarding Lil Wayne. He is my favorite rapper and all my music I download and buy off of iTunes in the “clean version”. Sometimes half the lyrics are missing to the songs but the beat is still there.
J.P.: I’m probably missing some spots, but according to Wikipedia you’ve played in Turkey, Australia, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, South Korea, the Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates and Poland. Oh, and even Idaho. Give me your greatest moment as a pro, your lowest moment as a pro and your craziest moment as a pro. And how many languages can you speak these days?
C.B.: That’s everywhere I’ve played.
My favorite moment as a pro is winning my first championship in Puerto Rico for Caguas de Criollos. After the win we celebrated by riding on the back of a pickup truck followed by thousands of cars on the highway honking and going crazy, yelling out “Caguas ahi!” Then when we got to the city of Caguas, each member of the team was dunked in the city square fountain. Such an amazing experience.
My lowest moment as a pro was in Ukraine. We were playing in a qualifying game on the road vs AEL in Limassol, Cyrpus. The winner of the game advanced to group play of EuroChallenge and loser was eliminated from the competition. We got blown out by about 30 points and all the Americans, Chris Owens, PJ Tucker, Andres Rodriguez and I are eating at TGI Friday’s when I receive a text from my agent—Pack your bags, the club has let you go. That was it.
Craziest moment as a pro. There are so many and I think most of my craziest moments are off the court dealing with something you wouldn’t see in the States. But the craziest moment basketball related is when I was playing last year in Dubai, UAE an Arabic country and during halftime I’m shooting around, preparing for the second half when the mosque prayer goes off and all of my teammates and opposing team leave the court and begin to pray as a group. The only two people shooting during halftime was myself and the other American import from the other team. I just looked up at my wife and asked, “Do you think it’s okay to keep shooting?” Halftime lasted about 35 minutes. That was a pretty crazy experience.
J.P.: Was there a moment—if there has been a moment—when you accepted, “You know what, I’m X-years-old, I’m never gonna play in the NBA?” When did it happen (if it did), and does/did it hurt? I would think having a lifelong dream, then not having it come to fruition, might hurt. On the other hand, man, you’ve had quite the journey …
C.B.: There was that moment in the Summer of 2006 playing with Washington Wizards in Long Beach Pro Invitational. At the time I had already signed a pretty nice contract to play in South Korea but my contract had an NBA out clause, so if the Wizards wanted to sign me, I was free to leave my Korean club. After playing about 15-20 minutes a game with the Wizards earlier in the month at the Las Vegas league, I was feeling pretty good about things. When Long Beach came around, I was playing about 5-10 minutes and after the third game I called my agent and said “Look, I’m done with this NBA. I’ve signed a nice contract to go play in South Korea and let me focus on that.” There’s only so many times you can keep being let down with not making the NBA and at that point I was happy with the way my international career was going. I wasn’t let down or hurt at all because I was pretty excited with the direction things were going with basketball anyway. Even though I didn’t live my lifelong dream of playing in the NBA, I still consider myself a professional basketball player playing the game I love, traveling the world and providing my family a nice life.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH CHRIS BURGESS:
• Spider Man or Green Lantern?: Spider Man
• Nicest women’s bathroom you ever used: Ask Creed
• When I retire from basketball, I’ll …: be coaching at some level, high school or college.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details: Yes, at Duke flying to Tallahassee on a small charter jet. Roshon McLeod was sitting next to me with vomit bag and the plane was going up and down like crazy. When I saw the flight attendants buckle up, that made me nervous.
• What does it feel like to be emphatically dunked on: It feels like someone’s briefly taking a piece of your manhood. You want to get the ball and dunk back on somebody within the next 30 seconds before that embarrassing moment passes.
• Weirdest all-time name of a teammate: Vagislav—too many jokes for that one.
• In 2011, could an openly gay player survive in pro basketball?: In the States, yes. Overseas—no.
• How’d you meet your wife?: She was a soccer player at the University of Utah and we met at a small party. She came up to me and introduced herself. We started talking, I offered her a ride home at the end of the night and it turned out we lived in the same apartment complex two doors down.
• Best player you’ve ever played with: Magic Johnson, pickup game at UCLA men’s gym. Hakeem Olajuwon was also on my team.
• Five things that you won’t eat: Greek yogurt, spaghetti and Ketchup (Turkish thing), cauliflower, kimchi, Vegemite.
• 10 bowls of anchovy-topped cottage cheese every day for the rest of your life, or your family has to permanently relocate to Lubusz Voivodeship?: Ten bowls of anchovy-topped cottage cheese. After all my travels, I just want to be home in either Southern California or Salt Lake City, Utah.